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Compassion Fatigue

The impact upon parents who care for children who cannot engage


He’s so ungrateful and just won’t engage.

Every time I ask him how he’s feeling, he just shrugs and says ‘fine’

Clearly he is not!

He spends most of his time in his room which is a complete tip, rarely showers, eats crap and grunts when I ask him to do anything.

I told the Social worker how bad things have become but she just compared him to other children with ‘far worse’ behaviours.

I know he doesn’t swear, throw chairs or constantly seek my attention but quite frankly I’d find it easier to manage if he did!!

At least he would be showing me how he felt. At least I would know he was actually present.

It’s like living with a zombie at times.

I know why he cannot connect, I know it’s not his fault. I do not need the social worker to keep reminding me. I’m not stupid, I’ve done the blinking training....

I feel like I’m being judged and blamed. I certainly feel unheard.

I’m not sure how much more I can take, how much longer I can go on for.

He irritates me and then I feel bloody guilty. I can’t seem to access my empathy for him.

I feel like a stranger in my own home.

Perhaps he would be happier if he lived elsewhere.

I’ve failed.


Compassion fatigue doesn’t just affect parents who are caring for children with extreme and overt behaviours. When you are living with somebody who cannot engage, you are at extreme risk of developing symptoms of compassion fatigue.


When a baby experiences a need, they communicate this need via their behaviour. This is usually expressed by crying, turning their head away, pulling up their knees etc. If their needs are consistently unmet and the baby is not responded to predictably and reliably sadly the baby gives up trying. Many of us aware of the historical stories of silent orphanages. Babies were known to sit and rock and bang their heads on the side of their cots. When this happens the child has given up trying to engage in a relationship with their caregivers as they do not believe they will be responded to. They do not believe the relationship can be relied upon.

Relationships need to be reciprocal and when a child doesn’t experience that serve and return relationship with their primary caregivers, they eventually shut down and stop trying.


I am in no way minimising the impact of looking after children with extreme behaviours, however these children are still ‘doing’ relationship with you albeit an unhealthy one. In other words the baby is still crying! When looking after a child who on the surface appears to be ‘okay’, overly compliant and masking, there is no reciprocity in the relationship. The serve and return is non-existent. The parent keeps trying to engage and the child does not respond or responds in an inauthentic and disingenuous manner. We know that this is the child’s survival response however the impact on parents caring for such children cannot be underestimated. My experience of working with many hundreds of parents who are caring for children from trauma has indicated that such children can be extremely difficult to care for as the parent feels helpless, rejected, not good enough, judged and blamed.

Often they will judge themselves as they compare their child to others.

Sadly they are at significant risk of a family breakdown without support, understanding and empathy. Once they feel heard and begin to move out of compassion fatigue they can once again access the necessary training and strategies in order to find a way to break through the barriers that the child has in place to keep themselves safe. Although this can take a long time and will require a lot of support from others, once we help a child to begin to trust that they are wanted, needed and belong, they can risk investing in a relationship with us.


Sarah Dillon Director of Therapeutic Services NATP (c)


Are you struggling to connect to your child? ​ Do you feel like you are at the end of your tether, exhausted, can't go on? ​ If so you may be suffering from compassion fatigue. This is our immediate online intervention which will help you right now!


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